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we care for what we know

August 19, 2021

I’ve been thinking this week about how things aren’t real until you put a face to them.

The heart of my dear friend, Shannon Galpin, is breaking. A Colorado resident until recently, she has spent many years in Afghanistan as an activist, working to improve the lives of women there. She was pivotal in the establishment of Afghanistan’s first women’s cycling team, an accomplishment that earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. (I still get choked up thinking about this.)

Shannon’s love for Afghanistan and its people run deep. But now the country is changing. It’s not familiar. It’s not friendly. She is losing a love of her life. And my heart has been sad for her.

This past weekend, my thoughts were also with the people of Afghanistan, but admittedly, in a largely intellectual way. I’m an analyst by trade, and I wrote my PhD dissertation on why it’s impossible for any central government – foreign or domestic – to tame Afghanistan, so my initial urge was to analyze.

But when I thought of my friend Shannon, whom I feel close to, I began to feel sadness with my heart rather than think it with my head.

When Shannon told me last weekend that she was working to get people out of Afghanistan, I told her, “I’m good at spreadsheets! Let me know if I can help.” (When it comes to these sort of things, it's not a stretch to think that a spreadsheet might be involved.)

The next day Shannon started sending me passport photos of Afghans looking for a way out, and I started inputting their information into a U.S. State Department spreadsheet. Each morning this week, before changing out of my pajamas or having my coffee, I got to work entering the names and personal information of a new batch of people.

With each photo ID I saw, my imagination started running. I wondered about the stress each person was under. I wondered if they could sleep or eat, or if they were in any danger. So many were young, one boy not even a year old. I wondered how they’d handle the psychological scars of what was happening and imagined they would be resilient as they carried all their grief and fear (if the Afghan people are anything, it’s resilient). I thought about the mothers worrying about their children, and the fathers worrying about the mothers. Their situation is alien to me, but I tried to imagine it – the Taliban right outside, in the street, and the country I call home no longer mine.

I double- and triple-checked every entry in the spreadsheet. I know how bureaucracy works: life or death can hang on a single incorrectly recorded digit. I wasn’t going to be sloppy.

Then just yesterday, I brought myself to view the video of those people fruitlessly clinging to the side of a U.S. Air Force jet as it departed Kabul airport, all hoping for rescue, some meeting a horrible death.

My heart sank.

And now here I am, late on a Wednesday night, anticipating the next batch of names tomorrow, and feeling ashamed about my empathy.

I feel ashamed because my empathy is biased.

I cared about Shannon first because she is special to me – even though the experiences of native Afghans still in the country are much worse. I then cared about those people in the passport photos because I saw their faces, learned their dates and places of birth, and learned the nature of their family relationships. And then I felt for those people who hung so tightly to that aircraft, because I saw them with my own eyes.

Empathy forced me to care about some more than others. It blinded me.

What if I had the power to choose who in Afghanistan could leave and who would have to stay? Would my decision be fair? Or would it be based on what I felt?

In contrast, when I think about the situation intellectually, I feel less but I care more completely, and for more people.

Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom has written an entire book on the subject of empathy, arguing that its biased nature is one reason why “rational compassion” might be a better way to go. Reason, he argues, allows us to care in a less biased way. Reason can lead to more just social solutions.

After this week, I get firsthand what he means. Of course, we will always feel more for those we know and are connected to. Of course, personal stories are more compelling than statistics. We can't help that. But when it comes to making decisions, if we base our choices on who we feel the most empathy for, rather than considering who might actually have the greatest need, our decisions could be socially unjust.

Maybe, if we use our intellect instead, our decisions could be more fair, and maybe we would all be better off.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still going to enter names into that spreadsheet. Every last one I get. Shannon and her support system can’t get everyone out of Afghanistan, but we should help whomever we can. We just can’t forget about those we don't feel for, those we don't know. We can't forget that everyone deserves to live free of fear. Everyone. No one is more deserving. No matter how well we know them.

That is all.

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